Title: The Kitchen Daughter
Author: Jael McHenry
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Read: January 16, 2013
A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.
Ginny Selvaggio has had a sheltered upbringing. At 26 years of age she is still living in her childhood home with her parents, hiding from a world which is confusing for her. Many things other people take for granted are frightening for Ginny: loud noises, for example, or people’s touch, metaphors and interpreting emotions. When Ginny’s parents die suddenly, she copes with her feelings of loss and grief the only way she knows, by cooking. Following in the footsteps of her mother, who was an excellent cook and has taught Ginny all about food from a young age, cooking is the one thing Ginny is good at and which helps her cope with unexpected situations. On the day of her parents’ funeral, overwhelmed by grief and the crowd of mourners in her house, Ginny retreats to the kitchen to cook her late grandmother’s recipe of bread soup – and is visited by the ghost of her Nonna, giving her a cryptic warning.
In the days that follow, Ginny discovers that she can evoke the ghosts of the dead by cooking recipes written in their own hand. When Ginny’s sister Amanda threatens to sell the family home, and Ginny discovers some photos of a mysterious stranger and a letter of apology and regret written by her father to her mother, Ginny resorts to her newly discovered gift to get some answers – with some unexpected results.
With The Kitchen Daughter McHenry has created a heart-warming coming-of age story from the perspective of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although Ginny has never been officially diagnosed, many of her reactions and the way she interprets the world around her are characteristic of someone living with the syndrome. From the outset, Ginny’s voice seemed genuine to me, as the reader is invited to look at the world through Ginny’s eyes. With her mother having consistently refused to have Ginny examined and diagnosed, she is aware of being different from other people but has had to develop her own explanations and coping skills. It instantly raised the question for me whether her mother was doing Ginny any favours by sheltering her from the world and refusing to acknowledge her differences out of fear of having her child “labelled”. As Ginny makes a startling discovery about her parents, her mother’s motives make a bit more sense.
With describing Ginny and her sister’s individual journeys of trying to cope with the loss of loved ones, as well as those of supporting characters, the author has created an insightful novel about the different types and stages of grief. Even in Amanda, Ginny’s overbearing and controlling younger sister, her deep hurt shines clearly through, showing how different people cope with emotions too strong to bear at the time. Another interesting aspect discussed in the novel is the concept of “normal”. As Ginny says: “There are so many flavours of normal, it doesn’t matter which one I am. […] There really is no normal.”
Ginny’s ghostly visitors add a subtle touch of magic and whimsy to the story, without overdoing it, very much like another novel I recently revisited, Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris. I found the idea of being able to conjure the ghosts of loved ones through the smell of their own food very comforting – thinking that I still have many handwritten recipes from my own grandmother (who was an excellent cook), and how lovely it would be to be able to reconnect for a few precious moments to say the things that have remained unsaid. It is interesting to see Ginny’s motivations for inviting the ghosts of her relatives, and the things she chooses to discuss with them. Her encounter with her dead father was especially touching, for various reasons I will not spoil for readers here. One question, however, is still nagging me: what did Nonna really mean? Did I miss something?
I really enjoyed reading The Kitchen Daughter, and it left a warm fuzzy feeling despite much sadness contained in the novel. It is one of those books which make for a nice cosy read in front of the fire, with a fragrant stew simmering in the background – or one which would offer many pertinent discussion points for a bookclub read.
Readers who enjoyed this story may also like reading Addition by Australian author Toni Jordan, an insightful novel told through the eyes of a person living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I read this book as part of the 2013 What's In A Name Reading Challenge - read a book with something you'd find in your kitchen in the title.